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Mold in city apartment makes residents sick

No requirement for air quality testing in Baltimore
Posted at 8:58 AM, Oct 28, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-28 23:27:52-04

BALTIMORE — On the front door of Kevin Lanier's Baltimore City apartment is a sign he bought when he first moved in 23 years ago.

"It's a Maya Angelou quote and it says, 'Home can heal and there is healing in the home.' And unfortunately, this home is not healing me. It's actually making things worse," said Lanier.

For the last 10 months, his home has been making him sick. His furniture is covered in plastic. His vents are sealed up. His heat and air conditioning are turned off. He now sleeps on his couch. At the suggestion of his doctors, he wears a medical mask at all times. It's all to prevent further exposure.

The problem started at Courtyard Apartments in Baltimore in early 2018 in the unit below him. That family showed attorney Neil Bixler air testing, which found high levels of unhealthy mold in the living room and bathroom from unresolved water damage.

"His daughter got really sick, had to hospitalized. They just moved out because they were getting sick," said Bixler.

They moved out last summer. The landlord, Fairfax Station Enterprises, let the family out of their lease early and gave them their security deposit back. The city's Department of Housing and Community Development said the water damage violations issued on June 6 were fixed on September 21.

But in January of 2019, Lanier's asthma really started acting up. The landlord gave him an air purifier but nothing helped. He saw a few doctors and started noticing more dust in his bedroom so he hired an independent company for $600 to test the air in his apartment. The results showed high levels of unhealthy mold.

"It was alarming because one, me being asthmatic and two, after being determined that I tested positive for mold allergies, I was stunned because I didn't know exactly what my next course of action was," said Lanier.

Then in May, he found mold in the basement laundry room, one floor below him. A Baltimore City housing inspector found the appearance of mold and water damage, as well as water on the floor near the window, and issued a violation on May 16. The city said it was abated on July 2.

"There's no way to know if it was done properly," said Bixler.

That's because there's no requirement in the city or surrounding counties to test the air for mold. A spokesman for Baltimore City Housing said instead, the inspector performs a visual inspection to ensure that the area is clean, dry, and undamaged.

"Completely ignoring the fact that the mold spores by definition are microscopic. You cannot see them with the naked eye unless you have a lot of active mold growth," said Bixler.

He's fighting for more protections for renters, like adding a requirement for mold testing during city inspections.

"Would it add a little bit more to the cost? Sure, but considering the savings dealing with health impacts, it's well worth it," said Bixler.

It's something the Baltimore City Council will soon consider, holing a public informational hearing on mold in housing on November 12 at City Hall.

"Is the good that can be gained from the regulation going to be worth the trouble and expense of imposing the regulation on the people who didn't need it?" said councilman Bill Henry.

"It's not that expensive and it's more expensive not to do the right thing in the long run," said Bixler.

Bixler is now working to get Lanier compensation for medical bills and months of missed time at work. They are in mediation through the Attorney General's Office. The landlord's lawyer offered Lanier $1,000 and a 30-day release if he waived his future legal rights. Lanier declined.

"The lawyer tried to make a point that there's no legal standard for which a landlord had to comply and I said that's technically not true. Under Baltimore City code and many counties have this, they have an obligation to have a safe, habitable environment," said Bixler.

Then, in early October, Lanier got a knock on the door. The landlord hired an independent company to test the air quality of his apartment and the basement. It's a bit of progress for Lanier but more than the compensation, he wants to make sure no one else falls victim to this.

"Until you get these guidelines put into practice, situations like this will continue to happen. I've heard and known of people who have died of mold exposure and have had surgeries because of mold exposure. Some of this stuff is preventable," said Lanier.

In both cases, although the work was supposed to be completed within 30 days and wasn't, the city didn't issue any citations.

"Our standard practice is to offer an extension to property owners who are attempting to abate a violation. The goal is to allow the property owner to invest financial resources into correcting violations ― for the safety of tenants ― rather than enforcing penalties that may cause financial strain and/or a delay in making the repairs," said Kevin Nash, Public Information Officer at Baltimore City Department of Housing & Community Development.

The apartment's landlord told Bixler they have received the results of the air testing and while they review them, the landlord is going to get the HVAC inspected and then go ahead with some duct work cleaning.

The attorney did not have any further comment for WMAR-2 News, citing "pending litigation."